Original Research

An exploration of synthetic biology: A preliminary Christian ethical assessment of the advantages and disadvantages of synthetic biology

Riaan A.L. Rheeder
In die Skriflig/In Luce Verbi | Vol 48, No 2 | a722 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/ids.v48i2.722 | © 2014 Riaan A.L. Rheeder | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 23 April 2013 | Published: 08 October 2014

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Riaan A.L. Rheeder, Faculty of Theology, Unit for the Development of Reformed Theology, North- West University, South Africa


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Abstract

On 20 May 2010, the Venter Institute in America announced that they have fully synthesised the genome of the organism Mycoplasma mycoides whilst in vitro by using a computer connected to a machine that synthesises genes. Thereafter, the genome was placed back into the casing of another organism (Mycoplasma capricolum) and it was reported that the synthesised organism and the genome functioned normally. This synthesised organism was reconstructed to function as a minute little factory with the aim of producing and secreting fuel and medicine − something that is not the natural function of this organism. There are certain potential dangers inherent in this kind of technology. Scientists fear that this technology may contaminate or infect humans, animals or the environment, and that it can as such be extremely harmful, or even lead to the destruction of humans. Other scientists are concerned that terrorists can use this technology to kill innocent citizens. Some ethicists are of the opinion that the consequences of synthetic biology is currently unpredictable and that it is therefore risky. In opposition to the potential dangers, one has to mention that synthetic biology indeed can result in far-reaching positive outcomes such as the manufacturing of biofuel and medication. Most scientists and ethicists are of the opinion that the potential dangers involved in synthetic biology should be evaluated in light of the fact that genetic manipulation has not caused any biological devastation over the last 30 years. From a Christian point of departure, the opinion is currently that synthetic biology is not an irresponsible science and technology.

’n Verkenning van sintetiese biologie: ’n Voorlopige Christelik-etiese beoordeling van die voor- en nadele van sintetiese biologie. Op 20 Mei 2010 het die Venter-instituut (in Amerika) aangekondig dat hulle die genoom van die organisme Mycoplasma mycoides ten volle in vitro gesintetiseer het (deur middel van ’n rekenaar, gekoppel aan ’n masjien wat gene sintetiseer). Die berig het verder gelei dat die genoom daarna teruggeplaas is in die omhulsel van ’n ander organisme (Mycoplasma capricolum) − en dat die gesintetiseerde genoom en organisme normaal gefunksioneer het. Hierdie gesintetiseerde organisme word gerekonstrueer om as minuskule fabriek te funksioneer met die doel om brandstof en medisyne te produseer en te sekreer − wat nie die natuurlike funksie van die organisme is nie. Aan hierdie tegnologie is daar ook bepaalde potensiële gevare verbonde. Wetenskaplikes is bang dat hierdie tegnologie mens, dier en omgewing kan kontamineer of infekteer en op dié wyse groot skade kan aanrig − en selfs tot mense se dood kan lei. Ander wetenskaplikes is weer bekommerd dat hierdie tegnologie deur terroriste gebruik kan word om onskuldige burgers dood te maak. Sommige etici is oortuig dat die gevolge van sintetiese biologie tans onvoorspelbaar, en daarom riskant is. Teenoor die potensiële gevare moet gestel word dat sintetiese biologie inderdaad omvangryke positiewe uitkomste soos die vervaardiging van biobrandstof en medisyne tot gevolg kan hê. Meeste wetenskaplikes en etici is van mening dat die potensiële gevare verbonde aan sintetiese biologie beoordeel moet word in die lig van die feit dat genetiese manipulasie in die afgelope 30 jaar geen biologiese ramp veroorsaak het nie. Uit ’n Christelike oogpunt word voorlopig geoordeel dat sintetiese biologie nie ’n onverantwoordelike wetenskap en tegnologie is nie.


Keywords

Synthetic biology

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